Is football media making the most of football data?

Casey Evans examines how data are used in the media and whether fans deserve better, or even want it

Football has experienced a statistical revolution in the past decade but, despite the breadth of information at their fingertips, this changing picture is still yet to influence how fans view the game as a whole.

Yes, fans are happy to boost the profiles of their standout stars on social media, posting statistical breakdowns of an already visibly good performance. But when the data needs to be used to analyse a performance where the merits aren’t as obvious, I believe that as a community we are still falling short.

I believe this is because, despite the information now available, the football community is still viewing the sport through an analogue and archaic lens.

If we take two Manchester United players, Wout Weghorst and Diogo Dalot, for example, then we can put the issue into focus.

Weghorst receives some leeway from his fanbase due to his ‘effort’. This is one instance where a perceived intangible that has existed for years in the sport can now be reflected by stats (for example, successful pressures, distance covered, and defensive actions).

When he is on the pitch United play better (especially against sides where the team is hoping to hold more possession), due to his hold-up play, which is again reflected in the data. However, he is still regarded as a net negative by many due to one key factor: he doesn’t score many goals.

Weghorst putting in a defensive shift

Dalot also experiences a similar phenomenon. If asked, an average United fan who watches the team week in and week out might struggle to define what the Portuguese full-back’s role in the team is (beyond the area of the pitch he is supposed to occupy most often) and, more importantly, whether he performs it well.

Dalot is not an outstanding tackler nor does he rack up tons of assists, so many struggle to see what he brings to his side. Indeed, to understand what Dalot does in Erik ten Hag’s system you need to look below the surface and view data that is not readily displayed, such as progressive passes and passes into the final third. And therein lies the problem.

While dedicated data writers have worked hard to bring this information to the forefront and inform fans, the mainstream media has not quite got up to speed with the aforementioned analytical revolution. And this is despite not only a wealth of free data online, not least, but also the availability of complex data through regular media providers such as Stats Perform/Opta. The information is there, for freelance data writers and bloggers, through to Sky Sports or other large media outlets.

But most punditry and analysis still focuses on the ‘analogue’ stats: goals, assists, clean sheets, and tackles. These are the fundamental pillars on which the sport was built and they are still important, but by focusing merely on them we are not able to see the forest for the trees.

This works both ways. A bad performance by a forward can be overridden by them scoring a goal, especially if that goal leads to their team winning. See Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Erling Haaland, and Marcus Rashford just in the past few years.

As Roy Keane would say, ‘That’s their job,’ but keeping in mind the idea that a forward can score and still play badly overall can help explain greater trends when looking at the season as a whole.

On the other hand, in Jack Grealish’s first season at Manchester City, the English winger was criticised for a lack of output, especially due to his £100m price tag. However, when this question was posed to his manager Pep Guardiola, Guardiola simply replied:

“We didn’t sign for the incredible goals or assists at Aston Villa. It was another reason and when he played he did it. I want [him] to make goals and assists and he does too. But it’s not about that, it’s about his contribution without the ball and what he can produce for the other ones.”

The underlying data supported Grealish. Though at the time of the question being asked he had not registered a goal or an assist, he was still creating chances and carrying the ball into the box regularly (and credit must go to The Athletic, for one, for seeking to prove the ‘narrative’ wrong). Grealish was a threat and an asset to the City side, but of course, like any attacker viewed simplistically, if he doesn’t overtly contribute to the scoreline he can be cast in a negative light.

Grealish ‘failing’ to register output in a recent game

This misunderstanding, sometimes stoked, or at least enabled, by media narratives (for example, Grealish’s cost versus his output) creates a disconnect between the fans and the clubs they support. How can they understand why their manager keeps picking a player if the section of information that they are provided does not support that decision?

So I think as a whole, the football industry needs to make a change.

The production surrounding a football broadcast should add greater context to the match that fans are watching and should strive to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions and judgements.

Of course, there is the constant rebuke of whether detailed statistics are accessible to the general public, but I think this links to the fact that they are not seen as the norm in mainstream media. Remember the furore sparked when Match of the Day introduced expected goals? Furthermore, if broadcasters committed to displaying more data in their shows, over time they would be able to fine-tune it so that a general fan could use the information better.

As with everything in football, there is still the issue of ‘bad faith’. Some pundits are heavily against the use of stats and will reject any notion of them being used in the game. Unfortunately, data are now prevalent in how football is played, analysed, and coached, and so the media has a duty to be aware of this and reflect it.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is whether most fans actually want to know that much about something they consider entertainment. Not everyone who goes to the cinema is interested in the behind-the-scenes footage and the same can probably be said about football. It can be easy to operate on the assumption that everyone wants to view or process football the same way that those of us who write about it using data, or indeed who work for a data company, do.

But instead of presenting analysis as a bonus feature that is complimentary to your viewing experience, it should be marketed as information that can improve how you watch the game.

The proof of the efficacy of this is available, too. It has worked superbly in the mainstream media, when done well: last season Jamie Carragher used data collected by John Harrison on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football to discuss the quality of keepers using their xG saved statistics and other data. This segment was widely celebrated as it was simply explained and the information never seemed overwhelming.

TV2 in Norway has also been providing data-driven graphics for its coverage of the Eliteserien since 2017 with great success. Korean broadcasters Coupang Play have also implemented a similar approach to their own football coverage and they are set to have the rights to La Liga in their country next season.

Data used well can enhance understanding, although it’s also worth saying at this point that data for its own sake (tweets that simply list a number of data points, usually with a lot of emojis, do not serve to enhance anyone’s understanding, however well they do on Twitter, while single game xG can be another (popular) misleading use of data). But the right data, explained well, and in context, cannot help but enhance understanding of football. That is, after all, why football itself uses it.

So now we are at an impasse. Football will continue to evolve and as new and more complicated ideas are introduced by managers, analysts, or directors of football, it may become less easy for the viewer to comprehend. But, perhaps more importantly, the option should be there for those who wish to dive more deeply into the sport about which they are passionate to do so.

The data industry also needs to do its bit and make data more readily available to the public if possible. Most data is paywalled for good reason, but trickling a small amount of free content out, complemented by well-written analysis, may help change how they are perceived in the eyes of fans.

But the biggest shift that needs to happen, is within the coverage directly around broadcast. People who actively want to find out more about the game will search out an article hours or even days after an event, but the majority of fans’ analysis will come in the time before, after and in the middle of a game.

The data is there for the mainstream media to pull information from and there is also a massive pool of writers and analysts willing to interpret it for them. The question now is whether football media will take the next step needed to bring their coverage up to date.

Header image: IMAGO / Uk Sports Pics Ltd

At Analytics FC, we provide software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking.

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